Shaping Sand


Recalling Jorge Luis Borges short story “On Exactitude in Science” in which “the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City,” Shifting Sands produces maps that aim to represent the territory that they occupy. By deliberately placing maps into the material and visual culture of the landscape, we explore how these maps are transformed through physical contact and conversation with a dynamic landscape. These transformations become one of many kinds of feedback (material, narrative, representational) that converse within the complex history, landscape, and ecology of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Territory. 

The dunes are afforded a rich language of communication, speaking to each other as well as to human and more-than-human others. For more than two centuries settler-colonial interests have overshadowed those of the indigenous Chumash. As time has gone on, attempts to extract economic productivity from the dunes have increased in both number and scope, taking increasingly flexible forms that are material, aesthetic, educational, and ludic—including Hollywood productions, the largest oil spill in US history, tourism, and academic research. At each turn, the dunes respond, countering attempts at value extraction by literally burying invasive architecture beneath their shifting sands. By alerting nearby surfers to a subterranean oil spill through the abrasive taste in their mouths, from the subtle but growing presence of petroleum particulates mixed with sand, the dunes maintain an ongoing debate around value, economy, ecology, and autonomy in a landscape under constant revision.

This photo essay and installation juxtapose new forms of feedback to further the conversation, using maps to challenge the assumption that territory is a passive subject for violence enacted upon it, and highlighting moments where the dunes used their own voice to work against these extractive forces as a landform with its own desires and forms of feedback:

A map of a sphinx being buried in the dunes after the filming of 1923’s Ten Commandments illuminating that very sphinx’s head that has since been excavated and displayed in the Dunes Center local history museum; 

A map of the 1948-1992 oil spill beneath the dunes from a Unocal lead extraction operation taped to the sign of the current Chevron led remediation project that the company was forced to undertake when they bought the mineral rights to the plot from Unocal.

DUNES CENTER: The Dunes-as-Drawing and the Dunes-as-Artifact.

THE DUNES THEMSELVES: A history of the dunes temporarily occupies the territory.

From left to right: The Oceano Railroad cuts through the dunes before being buried;
Unocal oil drills slowly leaks millions of gallons of diluents underneath the Dunes over 50 years, before remediation begins;
Cecil B. Demille constructs then buries Sphinx in the sand, uncovered decades later by Peter Brosnan;
speculators construct Oceano Dancehall, then destroyed via the unstable sand, as pieces are recovered by the Dunites to construct informal shelters.

ON SITE: Core samples unraveling the complicated and hidden Unocal oil spill on signage for the remediation site.

IAN ERICKSON is an M.Arch I candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and holds a B.A. from UC Berkeley. He is the founding editor of Disc and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Avery Review, Pidgin, Flat Out, and Room One Thousand, among others.

JON LEVINE is an M.Arch 1AP candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He has previously worked at OMA and Landing Studio. His installations ha ve been featured in PRADA FW20, MIUMIU FW20, ArchLeague Beaux Arts Ball, the Harvard Arts First Festival, and SPACEUS.

This project was supported by the Penny White Project Fund from the Department of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, as well as by funds from the Department of Urban Design. The maps were originally developed for Charlotte Malterre-Barthes’ 2021 seminar “Mapping the Political Economy of Space,” TA’d by Kathlyn Kao.

%d bloggers like this: